Zynga's FarmVille 2 tries to raise visual bar for social games

Zynga has launched one of its most ambitious games in its short history, FarmVille 2. The game is a sequel that is not a sequel to one of its most important games, FarmVille.

FarmVille was one of those iconic games that put social gaming on the map, and allowed Zynga to pull ahead of the pack of other social gaming startups when it launched three years ago. The importance of FarmVille to Zynga, both financially and culturally, can’t be understated. Even as the number of players dwindles, Zynga has managed to grow FarmVille revenue by launching a series of extensions.

But FarmVille 2 is not an extension of FarmVille, though it employs many of the familiar mechanics. Plant crops. Grow crops. Players who play FarmVille 2 will in fact be playing a whole new game, building new neighbors, new credits and new cash.

“We really think of it as the next generation of FarmVille,” said Tim LeTourneau, Zynga’s vice president of games. “But it’s also the next generation of social games.

“We recognize there are a lot of poeple who have moved through FarmVille and are not playing any more,” LeTourneau said. “We think there’s an opportunity to bring them back to digital farming.”

While there are a set of new features and mechanics, what really sets FarmVille 2 apart from its predecessor is its far richer graphics. The game is Zynga’s first built using Flash 11, allowing for a 3-D environment.

“We switched because we wanted it to be an immersive experience,” LeTourneau said. “This can bring the board to life in ways we couldn’t in 2-D.”

The story driving FarmVille 2 involves your character returning to revitalize the old family farm, according to Mike McCarthy, creative director for FarmVille 2. Some actions are just like FarmVille:  Plant crops, add neighbors, get help with tasks, etc. But there are also new twists, like a grocer who drives up to buy your crops; the ability to call over animals such as goats to chew away brambles; managing water supplies.

And of course, the actions are far more animated than they were in FarmVille.

“There are a lot of new ways to really express yourself,” McCarthy said. “The decorations all come to life.”

And visually, as you zoom back from the farm,  the player can see the broader village of which they are a part:

Both executives acknowledged that given the name (“FarmVille”) involved, there is a lot of pressure to get this right.

And, of course, given the ongoing pressure on Zynga’s stock price, and concerns about revenue, this high-profile launch is bound to be closely watched by investors and players alike to provide further evidence about Zynga’s future.

The first FarmVille caught lightning in a bottle. It’s harder for new social games to go viral in quite the same way. But what will be interesting to see is whether FarmVille 2 can endure and grow over time in the same way its predecessor managed to do.

That may be the key for Zynga to turnaround the negative perceptions hovering over the company, and convince skeptics that it’s building a company for the long haul.